Interview: The Queer Shakespeare Project

August 26, 2020 Donna M Day No comments exist

The Queer Shakespeare Project is a new theatre company who “came out” of a global lockdown to create work with the international LGBTQ+ community. Right now, they are creating online work which embodies their core message: you are welcome, no matter where you are in the world or who you are, you will find a safe space here.

Their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will premiere on YouTube on 6 September.

I caught up with their Artistic Director, Zach Waddington, and cast members Miranda Colby-Browne  playing the fairy, Mustardseed, and also performing her original piece the Fairy Lullaby, Emily White playing Helena and Vidhi Mehra playing Petra Quince.

You’re all about celebrating Shakespeare and Queerness. Why did you choose A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Miranda Colby-Browne

Miranda: I personally think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was chosen by the team due to its focus on several storylines happening at once, and its wide cast, both of which allow us to present a wide range of Queer stories. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also a fun show that’s enjoyable to watch, and so it reflects Queer stories in a positive light which is desperately needed in today’s media.

Zach: I chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it is my favourite play. It is so magical and really hits the celebration vibe that we were looking for. I also wanted to find something that displays not only love in the “natural” sense but also unity which is shown in the Mechanicals and individuality. I wanted to explore Queerness in the sense of identity: Too many times, there is a show about a gay cisgender white man and his love for another gay cisgender white man. I needed something where I can see myself represented. I believe we have done an amazing job at exploring Queerness in that sense.

Vidhi: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, provides its readers with several gaps for them to fill in. This leads to several possible interpretations, giving us the space to explore different narratives. The play has been a long-time favourite comedy for many, and has a mass appeal owing to its humour. With the already diverse groups within the play as well (the Fairies, the Mortals, and the Mechanicals), it offers further scope to play around with the gender and sexuality of the characters, providing a pathway into the celebration of Queerness.

Emily: When I saw the words Midsummer and Queer in the same sentence I was like “Hell Yes!” I think my biggest reason for auditioning was Zach wanting transgender actors, which is amazing and something that needs to happen more.

The play is one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies. Are the themes still relevant today? How do they relate to your message?

Emily: Oh I think it is extremely relevant today! From rehearsals I am seeing so much of my personality and flaws and insecurities in a character written over 400 years ago. Shakespeare knew how to write very universal characters who anyone can project onto and see themselves.

Zach: A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been performed over and over again in so many different ways. One production is completely different from the next and so on and so on. The themes of love and unity are always there, in every community and in every way of life. This play also (as many Shakespeare plays do) gives so much room to play around with the characters that it feels right with our vision of sharing our individualities and our community.

Miranda: One of the themes of the play is about loving who you choose to love, specifically Hermia choosing to love Lysander instead of Demetrius, whom Theseus wishes her to marry instead. This has an interesting parallel to our heteronormative society, and how people may feel pressured to date members of a gender they are not attracted to, simply because society enforces certain rules and restrictions on who we should love. In a Queer Night’s Dream, we want to show the beauty in loving those we choose to love, and the freedom that comes with escaping societal norms in order to do so.

Vidhi: The play might come across as a simple comedy with most of the humour arising out of miscommunication and mischief, but a closer look at the themes reveals much more. The play talks of love – the hurdles, the irrationality, the blinding and oft beautiful force of nature that it can prove to be. Love of all different kinds, which is something our world seems to be yearning for right now. The play also explores the theme of dreams, as the title suggests. Certain desires that can only be fulfilled if you dream with enough conviction (and a little bit of magic!).

Zach: The most important thing that I wanted to get out of rehearsals is a sense of unity and love for each other in the cast. We have definitely succeeded in doing that and I am so proud to have created a productive and safe space for anyone to join.

Vidhi: The theme that seems to stand out for me and seems to be very close to our production as well is that of transformation. We come across transformations within the play – transforming affections between the pairs of lovers, a human changing its form, transformations at the end resolving conflicts. Who can better understand transformations than a group of young Queer individuals exploring their own personal journeys, some of which might also include physical transformations? As an ally, I also understand it as the need to transform our thought process, our heteronormative assumptions, and our actions, aiming to be as inclusive as possible, and being open to a continuous transformation/growth when our convictions are challenged.

Can you tell me a little bit about the story?

Zach Waddington

Zach: How can I do this without writing you an essay? There is so much in this production that I don’t know where to start!

Emily: The story has three mini stories in them: The lover’s story of falling in and out of love, the Mechanical’s preparation and performance of a play and a quarrel between the Fairy King and Queen. All these stories intertwine as well and finally ends in a wedding, which is always cute!

Vidhi: The story explores the Fairies with powers of magic, the Mortals (including the four lovers), and the Mechanicals. As the lovers aim to set out on their journeys, Puck wreaks havoc trying to follow Oberon’s orders. Chaos and confusion abound leading to hilarious outcomes.

Zach: The play starts off in a much darker place than how the story ends.

Miranda: Within the Mortals, Hermia and Lysander are in love, however Demetrius is in love with Hermia, and Helena is in love with Demetrius. This leads to many interesting scenarios when the Fairies interfere with the lover’s feelings.

Zach: The Duke and Egeus are unwilling to let them marry because of the ‘ancient laws’ of the city (which fits well within our narrative to set a real quest and journey up that many Queer folk have to go through). We meet the second group, the Mechanicals next and they are rehearsing a play, called ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, “for great Theseus’ nuptial day”.  There are some amazing characters here including Flute, Bottom, Quince and the others!

Miranda: The Mechanicals are a simple group and most of the Mechanical’s storyline focuses on the character Bottom, and his romance with the fairy queen Titania.

Zach: In our production, Oberon and Titania are parental figures to the other Fairies, representing the Queer young people who need a place to stay, to be themselves, to live unharmed. Oberon and (most of all) Titania are giving them that because no one else would. They are everything that Pride Events and Queer Safe Spaces are about. Love, empowerment and kindness.

Miranda: The Fairies are divided into two groups, under the rule of Titania and Oberon. During the play, Oberon’s Puck finds entertainment in tricking the mortal lovers, and Titania’s fairies obey the command of her donkey-turned lover, Bottom.

Zach: These three groups go into the forest and there are lots of laughs, fighting and interesting moments throughout, particularly, Titania falling in love with Donald Trump!

As we’re all still living in semi-lockdown, your show is premiering online. What challenges is this creating in rehearsals? Do you plan to perform live shows in the future?

Zach: Before we really started, I believed that this would never work and wouldn’t look very good. Then I realised something so much more important than anything that the actual show could give us – we are a community of LGBTQ+ people and their allies from around the world who have come together to share experiences, make connections, feel liberated and have fun. This is so important to me because there are many things within having a lockdown that can cause difficulties for us. I am so happy I have created this space and have this amazing team who have become like a family to me over these last couple weeks. This reason has made me realise that I shouldn’t take this space away from the people who made it happen. It has worked so well online that I don’t want to change it. Perhaps we will do productions that are live and online or perhaps do smaller productions alongside the major ones where we inhabit spaces. But I believe that all our productions will have an aspect of online-ness to work with.

Miranda: One issue that we’ve found with rehearsing online is dealing with different time zones. At times it can be a little frustrating trying to schedule rehearsals when half of us are six hours ahead of the other half!

Vidhi: Online rehearsals have been a relatively new experience for most of the cast and crew. Apart from the challenges posed by time-zones and unstable internet connections, it has been a wonderful adventure exploring the script online with people from across the world. A new approach to staging, lighting, sets, costumes, and the simplest actions like handing an object to the actor next to you has brought in a completely fresh perspective. While space might be limiting in terms of staging the play, the larger geographical and cultural boundaries have been blurred as Shakespeare brings us all together.

Zach: One of the major challenges is of course music rehearsals in as Zoom won’t let you speak at the same time as someone else, which is kind of essential for singing in unison! However, we are mixing this production up so that it is not live but our amazing Technical Manager, Gabriel Bisbey, will be connecting all the scenes and songs and dances together and it should work perfectly!

Emily: My main problem is a lack of connection I can do and the feeling of other actors around you. Its hard to play off people when you’re looking at them through a small screen. I very much hope to perform again in live performances, hopefully with some of my fellow actors!

Vidhi: I am sure we would be eager to do live shows in the future, as long as someone funds the travel and the accommodation!

Miranda: I would love to perform live with this company one day, but it’d feel awful to exclude people in other locations when this team has worked so wonderfully together.

Music plays an important part in the show and you have a number of musicians involved. What have been the challenges of incorporating these elements?

Zach: The music has been a great addition to this production! There is something so vital in Queer spaces and in our history to include music and dance. We have great musicians and choreographers involved!

Miranda: The main challenge of incorporating music was that none of us could rehearse in the same space. This meant that a lot of the music had to be pre-recorded and edited together. It also meant that for me, a lot of my underscoring had to be reworked to fit certain scenes, as it was hard to find opportunities to practice with the actors.

Emily: People’s internet connections. Its again that feeling of having people around you and feeling the music which you just can’t get from being by yourself.

Zach: With the dancing we have to be aware of the mirroring on screens and making sure there is not too much of a lag!!

Is there anything in particular you would like your audience to be thinking about after they have seen the play?

Emily White

Zach: The only thing I want from my audience is that they feel seen and they feel welcome. This whole production is built by Queer people for Queer people (and their allies) and I want that to shine through the screen and into their lives. It is so important to me that we give that space to our community all around the world.

Emily: I want people to know that they are loved and no matter what anyone says, they are valid and real and important. To quote Doctor Who: “I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important”. We are showing trans actors that they can perform Shakespeare, that they can be the lovers, that they can be the leads in a classical piece. When I was figuring my own Queerness out, you never saw any transgender actors on stage or singing but I want people to see this and see themselves on the screen.

Vidhi: I would like the audience to take a sense of community from this experience. To watch people from diverse backgrounds come together as individuals and create something as a unit. To watch young Queer individuals not be defined only by their Queerness, but at the same time assert their Queerness as an essential part of themselves. To feel the love we have felt for each other.

Miranda: I would love for our audience to be inspired by our play, and want to research the topics we touch on. Additionally, it’d be very rewarding for the audience to recognise the level of commitment that has gone into the production, and for the viewers to feel pride in their allyship or Queerness.

You’re a brand new company which has come out as a result of lockdown. Are there any other companies you are particularly influenced by? Do you think online theatre is a good thing to come out of the situation?

Zach: Online Theatre is amazing. It is accessible, you can be so creative with it, you have more options for casting and creative team choices! It is also a lot cheaper than getting a rehearsal room and theatre space which I am very grateful for!

Miranda: One company that inspired me to help in this project was the theatre group Team Starkid. Team Starkid essentially started the trend of uploading live plays and musicals online, which has now been continued by companies such as Disney in their virtual release of Hamilton. Now this trend may develop further, with the entirety of casting, rehearsing, and performing taking place online.

Zach: I feel like I get influenced by so many people and companies every day that I could never mention them all but my favourite director is Emma Rice. She has worked as an Artistic Director with Kneehigh, The Globe and currently, her own company, Wise Children. Rice’s work is so creative and I have heard from the people who have worked with her that her rehearsal room is just as creative as what we, the audience, see on stage!

Emily: Oh so many! Some of my favourites are Complicite, Frantic Assembly, Cheek by Jowl, DV8, Kneehigh Theatre, Headlong, Cahoots NI. I think it’s a very good thing. Theatre can be quite inaccessible to many people and doing online performances helps expand who can see what you have which is always a good thing.

Miranda: As tech advances its important that such a beloved genre of art evolves with these changes. Additionally, it removes issues regarding the location of certain plays, allowing the casts to become more diverse as people from around the world can join through the internet.

Vidhi: Several theatre groups have adapted and moved online – organising workshops, devising scripts, performing plays, and doing so much more. I believe online theatre is a wonderful thing to come out of a troubled period of time. Theatre in itself builds a fraternity, a community that provides support to everyone involved, and a global pandemic is when we rely on that support the most. Through this online theatre project, we received an opportunity to be part of an international theatre community. The exchange of ideas, sharing of cultures, and a realisation of our sameness more than our differences was all thanks to this wonderful project.

Zach: I am also inspired by Rob Miles and his online theatre company, The Show Must Go Online, who go live every week on wednesday and perform all of Shakespeare’s plays in his repertoire! It is really amazing to watch and has helped me learn even more about Shakespeare and his plays!

After this show, what else lies in the future for you and The Queer Shakespeare Project?

Zach: I believe The Queer Shakespeare Project will do more shows! The production has gone really well in rehearsal (and I assume it will go as well for the audience as it has for us!). I would personally love to do either Romeo and Juliet or Much Ado About Nothing next but something that I would also love to do is Hamlet with an entirely trans cast! (Maybe next year!)

Miranda: Hopefully, more shows! Working with this group has been a wonderful adventure, even despite its challenges. I’d love to keep expanding our team and our projects, and go on to create even more fantastic experiences.

Emily: I hope it is a very good future. Id love to work with them again and also try my hand at being on the creative side as well. Everyone in this company right now are so talented and I think all our love for Shakespeare and everything queer makes this company a beautiful family.

Vidhi: I hope we can continue to have similar such projects. Even if full-productions aren’t possible due to time constraints, shorter workshops where we further explore Shakespeare’s plays and characters would be lovely!

Zach: In my non-Queer Shakespeare Project life, I am starting university at Rose Bruford in Kent on the Theatre for Social Change course! Can’t wait to see what comes out of that!

What Piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to create a new interpretation of a Shakespearean play?

Vidhi Mehra

Miranda: Three words: Go for it.

Zach: I am probably going to share information you have never heard before but, Don’t Be Afraid of Shakespeare! You don’t have to know all the plays to do one of his plays! Do your research and have an appreciation for his work but it is OK if you don’t know ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING! I have a personal disliking of directors who are the pompous kind and keep Shakespeare all to themselves! Shakespeare is for everyone! It works so well to tell your own stories and we should be using him as such! People would hate that I said that, but we need to break down all barriers to the Bard. There’s no point in saying ‘don’t be afraid’ and still have the majority of the plays and Shakespeare groups only inviting people who are trained in the Bard.

Miranda: In creating a Queer Night’s Dream, I’ve realised how much Shakespeare’s work can be shaped and adapted to fit any narrative you wish to tell. I think the best advice would be to find a play that fits the tone of your message, then work on gathering a cast that shares the goal of sending this message to others.

Emily: Just do it! If you have an idea, just workshop it and develop it and put it on stage. Shakespeare plays are so flexible in how they can be performed due to their universality. You can mould these plays and create new meanings and I think that is what theatre should be. We need Shakespeare in the 21st century as much as we did in the 17th.

Vidhi: Do not be afraid to take a risk. Play around with ideas, explore, try out different things, and bless the world with more wonderful interpretations of the works of Shakespeare. Look for the clues he has left in the language, and most importantly, have fun!

You can find out more about The Queer Shakespeare Project on their Facebook, and watch the show on their YouTube from 6 September.

You can also donate to the Company on their Just Giving page.

Please let me know if you see the show and what you think of it.

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